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Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Can the hon. Gentleman give an indication—he intimates imprisonment—of what he thinks the penalty should be for the offence that would be created under new clause 4?

Mr. Chope: I cannot—I could, but I am not going to—because I do not want to create a barrier between myself and the Government. I have expressed the proposal in the most open terms, so that the Government can accept it and not say, "We don't agree with the maximum penalty." Obviously, that would be a matter for discussion, but I am sure that we could reach an accommodation with the Government on the maximum penalty in relation to new clause 4 or new clause 6 if they are willing to debate that with us.
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I shall not comment on new clause 7 for the moment because it was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), and I look forward to hearing his contribution on it.

New clause 12 would raise the maximum speed for heavy goods vehicles on single-carriageway roads from 40 to 50 mph in ideal driving circumstances. During the debate on such a proposal in Committee, I was delighted that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, enthusiastically supported my idea. He brought to that debate much experience of what it is like in the more barren parts of Scotland, where he believes that HGVs should be able to travel at 50 mph, rather than 40 mph. [Interruption.] I knew that, if I used a particular type of language, I would ensure that the hon. Gentleman returned to his place very quickly.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I hope that I will have the opportunity to comment on new clause 12 more fully later, but may I assure the hon. Gentleman that the north of Scotland is not barren, but highly productive?

Mr. Chope: Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I know the north of Scotland a little, but not so well as he does. I look forward to hearing his arguments on new clause 12.

The proposal in new clause 12 is supported by the magazine Commercial Motor and the Road Haulage Association. Indeed, I have received a letter of support from its director general. I am sure that the ordinary motoring public will also be pleased that we are thinking seriously about raising the maximum speed for heavy goods vehicles on single carriageway roads in ideal circumstances to 50 mph.

As I pointed out in Committee, when the 40 mph rule was first introduced, traffic levels on single carriageway roads were such that it was relatively easy for a motorist to overtake a heavy goods vehicle, so it could be done comparatively safely. Traffic was thus not held up at the speed of the slowest vehicle. Given current traffic conditions on many single carriageway trunk roads, especially those that meander between the east of Dorset towards the Devon border and beyond, it is difficult to find an opportunity to overtake a vehicle travelling at 40 mph, which leads to queues, often many miles long, of traffic travelling at or around that speed.

Mr. Greg Knight: Is there not another argument to support my hon. Friend's case? Since the speed limit was introduced, heavy goods vehicles have been fitted with much more effective braking systems, including air brakes in most cases, and power assisted steering. They can thus travel safely at higher speeds.

Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend makes a good point.

The Minister put up the defence against the proposal in Committee that, if vehicles travelled faster, the consequences of any accidents in which they were involved would be greater. No one would disagree with that, but we are suggesting that the mere presence of lorries that are limited to travelling at 40 mph on single carriageway roads is creating a lot of driver frustration, which leads to people taking unnecessary risks by trying to overtake when it is probably not safe to do so.
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We know that the frustration among the motoring public is such that at least one major delivery company—I think that it is the company that delivers for Tesco—has a notice emblazoned on the back of its heavy goods vehicles to show that they are limited to travelling at 40 mph on single carriageway roads. It has done that because people have complained that the vehicles should be travelling faster. Before the proliferation of speed cameras, I suspect that many heavy goods vehicles travelled at nearer 50 mph than 40 mph when circumstances permitted, but given today's tighter enforcement, they are going at only 40 mph, which is creating driver frustration and consequent road danger. If new clause 12 were accepted, it would be a move in the right direction towards improving road safety.

I shall leave the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) to make his own arguments about new clause 16 because he tabled the measure. However, Conservative Members are on the same side as him because we want more support for speed awareness courses. While I am on that subject, I can tell the House about a successful day of action carried out by the Hampshire constabulary. I think that it happened last week, but it was certainly reported in the New Milton Advertiser over the weekend. There is a dangerous piece of C road in the heart of the New Forest with a standard 40 mph speed limit. Hampshire police detected several vehicles travelling in excess of that speed and the drivers were given the option of either accepting a fixed penalty notice or having a discussion with a group of people who had owned animals that had been killed on the road, most of which were ponies. Not surprisingly, most of the motorists opted for the discussion.

A lot of interesting information came out of the process. Many people had not realised how dangerous the road was or how common such accidents involving animals were. Some had not even realised that the animals had owners. Although the animals are New Forest ponies, they have owners, so much distress and hardship is caused if they are run over by motorists who travel too fast. Many motorists had not realised the consequences of such collisions for them and their cars.

I support such enforcement using discretion at the roadside, although any motorist who was driving extremely fast was referred to the magistrates court or had to accept a fixed penalty with no argument. Such driver awareness programmes are a positive way forward for road safety. They are better than just having speed cameras because that system does not allow the issue to be addressed in the sensitive way that Hampshire police employed. As I have said earlier, sufficient numbers of police officers need to be devoted to road traffic responsibilities to carry out such a scheme, but we will put that right when we get into government.

New clause 19 arose from a further debate in Committee after it became apparent that there was no system of mitigation if people were given fixed penalty notices in circumstances in which they believed that, if a police officer had been at the scene, he would have exercised discretion and issued a caution or warning instead of a penalty. My thinking about the new clause partly arises from a constituency case. One of my constituents was caught out by a speed camera on a road
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on which the speed limit had recently been reduced from 40 mph to 30 mph. The driver had not realised due to an oversight that the speed limit had changed.

My constituent received a standard form to fill in to accept that he was driving the vehicle at the time. The form said that if he had mitigating circumstances, he should refer the matter to the magistrates court. He did that, but when the case reached court, the magistrate said that the court had no discretion on the issuing of penalty points. All hon. Members will have heard of constituents who have thought it unjust that they have received three penalty points as a consequence of a fixed penalty notice.

I know of another person who was convicted of speeding, despite the fact that the temporary speed limit sign on the road had blown over in the wind. I am sure that we can all think of similar examples. A wise law would take into account individual circumstances and allow proper discretion. Indeed, that is the type of law that we have in a mature democracy. A Stalinist society, however, makes an unthinking demand: "Thou shalt comply and if thou hast not, whatever the explanation, thou art guilty of an offence for which thou art subject to a fixed penalty." We need to take a more mature approach and allow some discretion and that would be the effect of incorporating new clause 19 into the law.

1.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner: I support my hon. Friend, but does he agree that the loss of a driving licence has very different consequences for a merchant banker who lives in Kensington and a plumber who lives in the rural depths of Sussex or the Isle of Wight?

Mr. Chope: I agree, and we could have a long debate about such differences. My hon. Friend's example demonstrates what happens when one reaches the stage of totting up points. Someone with 12 penalty points has to go to the magistrates court and argue that they should not be disqualified because the consequences would be dire for their job or occupation. I accept that for some people the consequences can be grave, but sometimes the injustice is compounded by the fact that the total number of penalty points is the result of a series of relatively minor speeding incidents. Some hon. Members have been subject to the totting up of points, after being convicted of a series of minor infringements of road traffic laws—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) seems to know who I have in mind, but Members on both sides of the House have found themselves in such difficulties.

New clause 19 is one of the most potent measures in this group of amendments, as it aims to redress the balance between the ordinary motorist and the law, and would ensure that the law is fair, rather than oppressive. The proliferation of fixed penalties is all the more reason why discretion should be allowed in genuinely mitigating circumstances. That discretion should be used to allow not only a reduced fine but a reduction in the number of penalty points. My proposals go much further and are more effective than the Government's proposals in the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 18 to 21 deal with driver education and unsafe driving. They would amend clause 22, which deals with the mischief of mobile telephones. We had a
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good debate about that in Committee and the Opposition have no problem with penalising people who cause danger to themselves or others as a result of driving without proper care or attention while using a mobile phone. However, we are concerned about the definition of driving. Under case law, which would be the defining consideration if this piece of legislation was accepted, driving includes circumstances such as a vehicle being stationary in a five-mile queue. The driver may have left the wheel to use a phone but, according to the law, he would still be regarded as driving.

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